10.3 Physical Development and Health

What Is It?

How do physical development and health goals relate to school readiness? The environment of a healthy womb and healthy habits established in the first five years of life lay a strong foundation for the physical and mental well-being needed for school success. The strength, balance, and coordination developing in the bodies of young children will grow into physical skills that allow them to pay attention; participate in games, active play, and sports; and use tools such as pencils, crayons, markers, and paint brushes.

Young children depend completely on adults to provide good nutrition, well-child care, health, and oral health care. Every day, parents establish the rudiments of healthy living—simple things like hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and toothbrushing—that will help keep them free from illness and able to attend school regularly. Proper nutrition supports brain development, growth, and health. The progression of large muscle development is generally predictable but only occurs when there is opportunity and encouragement for movement. Each new posture requires new learning about balance and brings new perceptions of the world. The sitting baby sees the world differently from the crawling baby. The walking baby needs to relearn all he knew about depth perception as a crawler. In turn, as the child perceives more of the world, she is motivated to gain a greater variety of movements. More movement builds strength, flexibility, and endurance.

Fine motor development (development of the small muscles in the face) is the foundation for communication through facial expression. Fine motor development also provides our unique ability to use our fingers. It doesn’t look like much in early infancy when babies who are just able to grasp a rattle can’t even figure out how to release it. However, by the age of three, they are using markers and paintbrushes, dressing themselves, using manipulative toys, and putting together puzzles. They are well on their way to having hands that build, write, turn pages, and create masterpieces.

How To

You support parents in protecting their child’s health and safety and developing healthy habits by:

  • providing information on well-child and immunization schedules.

  • teaching songs that help parents and children time how long to wash their hands or brush their teeth.

  • prompting parents to establish a routine to help their child wash hands after outdoor play, before eating, and after toileting.

  • knowing how to access resources in your community to promote safety, such as free outlet covers or car seats.

  • having community partners who can help the family find a medical or dental home.

  • being respectful of parents’ beliefs and values concerning health.

  • modeling healthy behaviors.

  • using motivational interviewing to discuss topics.

  • introducing health literacy.

  • talking about healthy nutrition and the value of physical activity.

  • sharing information about the effect of secondhand smoke on children’s health.

  • maintaining a safe environment in their home.

You support parents in promoting their child’s physical development by:

  • using and discussing home safety checklists and discussion.

  • helping parents have realistic expectations of large motor developmental milestones.

  • using the home environment to provide interesting physical challenges, such as putting a firm sofa pillow on the ground for an infant to crawl over.

  • encouraging parents to take the child outdoors to play.

  • finding objects in the home that can be thrown; perhaps a ball made from crumpled paper and taped into a ball shape.

  • figuring out safe ways to hang toys for reaching infants.

  • encouraging active, developmentally appropriate play with their child.

  • talking with parents about their feelings and beliefs; for example, should girls be active? Should boys do artwork? Is it safe to play outdoors? Are they in a hurry to have their child walk or run? Do they prefer a child who can sit quietly?

  • suggesting strategies for providing guidance to toddlers who want to climb on tables or other surfaces unacceptable to parents.

You can support parents’ promotion of fine motor development by:

  • bringing recipes for play dough for their child to build hand strength by making the dough and forming small items using their fingers.

  • using sidewalks or outside walls for broad strokes with water-filled brushes; moving to paper and markers as the child gains more finger control.

  • using writing utensils and manipulative toys.

  • singing songs with hand movements such as, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

  • playing the “thank-you game”: The child hands you an object, you take it and say thank you, and then you hand it back to the child. This grab-and-release activity not only supports fine muscle development but also helps reinforce the pleasure of taking turns.

(This information in this list was adapted in part from News You Can Use: Foundations of School Readiness: Physical Development and Health)

Experience It

Physical Development Video Clip

This is a very short clip of a baby just learning to walk. Notice that, although physical development would be the primary domain observed, multiple domains are at play at once, as in all infant–toddler development. Even though you can’t see the person behind the camera, they play a large role in the baby’s reaction.


  1. Describe the developmental domains observed in this scene.


    Various answers such as:

    • Physical: walking, pushing the chair, stooping and standing.

    • Social–emotional: smiling, vocalizing.

    • Language/literacy: vocalizations.

    • Approaches Toward Learning: persistence, initiation.

  2. What could you plan with the parent(s) to do at the next home visit based on your observations?


    Various answers such as:

    • Find other stable objects the child could use to support prewalking behavior.

    • Hold the child's hands and go for a walk in the home or outside.

    • Check around the home and see if the family has objects that the child could push.

    • Check around the home for safety issues that a newly mobile child may encounter.

  3. How do you observe with parents to help them notice all of the domains of development occurring in their child?


    Individual reflection

School Readiness

In this video clip, the home visitor works with Elinor and her mother on several aspects of their interests. One of Elinor’s mother’s goals for her is to learn scientific principles. The home visitor has followed up on Elinor’s interest in fish and on her mother’s goal by bringing magnetic fishing poles to go “fishing” with the child and her mother. Notice that during this brief interaction, the various domains for school readiness are constantly evident throughout.


  1. Describe the school readiness domains you observe in this scene.


    Various answers such as:

    Social and emotional development

    • mother and child smile at each other frequently

    • they are face to face throughout the experience

    • mother imitates child’s motion and words, tapping her head and saying her word for “Oops!”

    • mother shows pleasure at Elinor’s activities and words

    Physical health and motor development

    • holding the fishing pole

    • eye-hand coordination- picking up the “fish” with the poles

    • fine motor- placing the fish on the magnets

    • gross motor – Elinor sits, then stands as she does the activity

    Language and Literacy

    • “Swing, swing,”

    • “fish swim”

    • many words in her home language

    • mother repeats what Elinor says

    Cognition and General Knowledge

    • Discussion/observation of properties of magnets

    Approaches toward Learning

    • Problem solving around how to put fish on poles

    • self-regulation and persistence around frustration at not achieving her goal of keeping the fish on the pole

  2. How does the mother enhance the child’s experience by her observations and comments?


    Various answers such as:

    • She calls the child’s attention to the characteristics of the magnets, how they pick up the fish, etc.

    • She repeats and talks about what the child is saying: “fish swim, but Elinor’s swing”; the equivalent of “oops” in her home language and tapping her head.

    • She talks with the child in both English and her home language about the fishing activity.

    • She engages the child in the activity by playing the game herself and showing interest in the activity.

    • She faces the child throughout the activity, even though the child is physically closer to the home visitor.

  3. Is there anything else you would like to know about this family before planning future experiences with the parent(s)?


    Various answers such as:

    You may want to know more about their country of origin and their culture to integrate learning experiences appropriate to language and culture.

  4. What could the home visitor suggest to the parent as they plan for next time to expand on the child’s learning about magnets? Are there materials in the home that can be used to do that? As the home visitor plans experiences with the mother about magnets, how might she assure that all of the domains of development are addressed?


    Individual reflections

Learn More

Explore the different definitions of play and why it is so important in this edition of News You Can Use. This is useful information for home visitors, program staff, caregivers, and others serving infants and toddlers through Early Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start. Play benefits every aspect of child development as infants and toddlers explore their world and their bodies, while also learning about and mastering relationships and social skills.

This News You Can Use is full of ideas about how to create outdoor spaces that are engaging for infants, toddlers, and their families. Early Head Start teachers and home visitors may use this resource to set up spaces for families using community resources such as parks, gardens, and nearby schools.